Marcel Kruger on a vital new text about the Russian Revolution.
China Mieville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017), 396pp.
In the air of the compartment hung only three axe-like words: bourgeois, Junkers, leeches.
Marina Tsvetaeva, Crimea, September 1917
Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva was one of the many witnesses of the October Revolution in her home country; and her fate after that faithful October is also one among many similar tragic fates in its wake. Born a Muscovite in 1892, she was forced to flee her hometown in 1922 as her husband joined the White Army. In 1920, Marina had sent her youngest daughter Irina to an orphanage, only to learn later that she had died there of starvation. She returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1939 after almost twenty years living in poverty in Berlin, Prague and Paris; only to loose her husband and another daughter to the GULAG.
But before all that, Marina was hopeful, especially during the brief time of proto-democratic government shared between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet after the abdication of Tzar Nicholas II in February. Her hero was Alexander Kerensky, the dashing former solicitor and Minister of Justice, Minister of War, and after July the government’s second Minister-Chairman. She hailed him as Russia’s Napoleon in a poem written in April 1917.
And someone, falling on the map,
Does not sleep in his dreams.
There came a Bonaparte
In my country.
But during the months that followed the February Revolution, the dual power government did not help to improve the situation throughout the country, despite all the social change envisioned by politicians left and right. Russia was still involved in World War I, and increasingly racked by civil unrest, crime and famine. As the months progressed, Kerensky increasingly lost touch with the government and the public, allowing a very different politician to take center stage, one who had just returned from exile in Switzerland: ladimir Ilyich Ulyanov,better known as Lenin.
Like Marina in many of her poems written during that time, China Miéville’s latest non-fiction book charts those dramatic months between February and October, mainly by closely following the fates of these two men, the somewhat oily populist Kerensky and exhausted revolutionist Lenin – and what their decisions meant for Russia, Europe and us today.
Structured into ten chapters, beginning with a short summary of the political and social situation in Russia before 1917 in “The Prehistory of 1917” and ending with an “After October” epilogue, each other chapter of the book lines out the events during one particular month. As he has shown in his many London- and city-themed fiction books (first and foremost ‘The City & the City”), the storyteller Miéville feels most comfortable in an urban setting – and most decisive events of the October Revolution played out in the streets and government buildings of Petrograd, as the capital St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1914 (to remove the German words Sankt and Burg). While the unrest and revolts in the rest of the country are touched upon, the events in Petrograd are retold so vividly that they can almost be traced by the reader’s finger – also thanks to the detailed map of the city that comes with the book.
15 October. At the corner of Sadovaya and Apraksina, where in July shots from above had left demonstrators dead and scattering, a crowd blocked the tramcars. They shouted for samosudy, a street trial for two shoplifters, a man in a soldier’s uniform, a woman in smart clothes. The mob fought through the city militia into the department store where the thieves cowered. A heaving scrum hauled the man outside while his sobbing accomplice made for a telephone booth. The crowd overwhelmed an officer trying to protect her, wrenched open the door and pulled her out into a rain of blows.
“What are we waiting for?” someone shouted. He drew a pistol and shot the man dead. There was silence. Then someone shot the woman too, while the militia looked helplessly on.
Sunday in Petrograd. This was how justice worked now.
The writing is also strong in the characterization of Kerensky and Lenin. Here is Kerensky in uniform greeting the troops at the front and enticing them to the ill-fated offensive named after him; there is Lenin, clean-shaven and hiding under a variety of whigs escaping Petrograd to Finland after the violence of July, when the Provisional Government blamed the Bolsheviks and the party was dispersed, many of the leadership arrested.
Sometimes over the course of these months, maybe like some of the protagonists, I myself got lost in the endless barrage of meetings, councils and members of parliament hurtling from one location to another, but thankfully there’s a dramatis personae at the end of the book. But Miéville, mostly known for his weird fiction, serves the action tightly paced and with plenty of blood and grit to keep even those readers not really interested in the deeper machinations of politics engrossed in “October”.
In April of 1917, Marina Tsetaeva gave birth to her second daughter Irina, and, as they had done in previous years, her whole family went to spend the summer in the Crimea. It was here that she witnessed the birth pangs of Soviet Russia, witnessed the effects that a returned Lenin had on the Petrograd Bolsheviks just before the violent overthrow of the dual government by the same reinvigorated Bolsheviks. In her poem “Night.—Northeaster.” written in the last days of October in the Crimean port of Feodosia, Marina captures the chaotic atmosphere of that period.
Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood.
Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place.
Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles.
The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned.
While this sounds strangely prophetic in hindsight, many of the things that befell Marina Tsvetaeva were not immediately born out of the revolution. It is worth looking at the idealism of that revolution and what learning we could draw from it for us, today. As Miéville points out in the epilogue: “The revolutionaries want a new country in a new world, one they cannot see but believe they can build. And they believe that in so doing, the builders will also build themselves anew.”
Maybe it is no wonder that a certain Ioseb Jughashvili only makes a few fleeting appearances in both the events of October 1917, and the book. In the end, “October” is not a critical academic assessment of the revolution that provided its title, but, thanks to its tight pacing and grit, a refreshing and thrilling look at the events hundred years ago and what they mean for us today. Coming from a storyteller with immense curiosity, this is a fine book for a new generation interested in the events in Petrograd, one without the backwards-cast shadows of Stalinism and the Great Terror.
Lenin, exhausted by his constant fight for world revolution after gaining power in Russia, died following multiple strokes in 1924. In 1941, after the German invasion, Marina was evacuated to Yelabuga in the Tartar Autonomous Republic, where she had no means of earning a living. Out of options to support her only remaining son, she hanged herself on 31 August 1941. Alexander Kerensky managed to escape the violence of the October Revolution and emigrated to the US, where he died in 1970, the last of an invisible triangle of actors and observers.
In October, in the forests, leaves were coming down in drifts, clogging the train tracks. The trees shook from the thud of guns.
Marcel Krueger is a writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin who often writes about places and their history. His essays and articles have been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN Travel, the Matador Network, Slow Travel Berlin and many more, and he also works as Book Editor for Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. ‘Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers’ is out with I.B. Tauris. More info about Marcel can be found at www.kingofpain.org